Performers at the Medicine Hat Jazz Festival

Mark Sabbatini By

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(Note: This is part of the occasional "Back Roads Beat" series about jazz at lesser-known festivals and locations around the world.)

Theresa Sokyrka might be hard to get tickets for, but getting saturated by her live performances is easy.

The runner-up of "Canadian Idol 2" was the headline act at the 2005 Medicine Hat Jazz Festival, selling out weeks in advance and even my so-called "all inclusive" pass wasn't good for that one event. So my initiation to her was two hours of songs free for downloading at her Web site, with a huge amount of additional material available through links to fan sites. A few other full-length tracks are available from Canadian performers at this year's festival, but her material is by far the most plentiful.

Whether jazz purists will want some or all of Sokyrka's collection is another question.

I know little about Sokyrka, but based on her bio, latest album and a couple of interview snippets she seems more likable and talented than the typical "Idol" type—and I'm not just saying that because I'm writing this from her hometown of Saskatoon. Still, it's a struggle for anyone to make a great impression when thrown together with unfamiliar performers of varying ability to perform live songs like "Lionel Ritchie Medley."

The other tracks below are mostly from artists' albums, giving them something of an advantage, but they also will likely be of more interest since they are dedicated jazz musicians rather than dabbling in the genre. It'd be a stretch to say they capture the full flavor of the forty-something-show festival, but they do represent some of more noteworthy Canadian performers there. Artists from other countries are not included, by the way, since the idea is to spotlight the region (fear not—the Netherlands, Scandinavia and other places guests came from will be featured later this summer).

It's possible more tracks from Medicine Hat performers are out there—the list below represents those I could find from Google searches and the artists' web sites. A number of them—and many others—are performing at the Saskatoon Jazz Festival, where I'll be for the next week, so another roundup of songs will be included with my coverage there. By the way, I've found at least one good "promotional" site offering lots of free downloads from artists in Canada and elsewhere, which will be part of that review.

In the meantime, you can find out who's hot (and maybe find some links to sites with audio) by reading about the just-announced winners of the 2005 National Jazz Awards. Those wanting to broaden their minds about Canada's music scene can check out a collection of MP3 "mixtapes" of Toronto music in various genres (rock, for the most part).

Theresa Sokyrka

MP3 collection from official web site

The appeal of the recent Canadian Idol runner-up may be limited among jazz fans, but there's little disputing she's got one of the most generous free collections online. A total of 37 selections—including auditions, performances from the show and a CBC radio interview after the show—provide nearly two hours of everything from swing-era jazz to country to modern pop. Sadly, quantity doesn't mean quality, as many of the performances are awkward and audio is often something less than first-rate. One can hear fleeting moments of her talent and potential on "Dream A Little Dream" and "It's Only A Paper Moon," where her voice is controlled in range, but strong in tone, against a big band backing. But the audition of the duet "Unforgettable" is just that—the kind of atonal, halting and amateur mismash that "Idol" audiences seem to thrive on. The trend holds throughout, with many more hits than misses. Fans will appreciate most of it, even the rough moments for giving an "Idol" some humanity, but a stranger would be hard-pressed to come away from this thinking they'd heard Canada's best—or most-popular—singer. It's worth noting her 2005 album These Old Charms is considerably better and more contemporary folk jazz than diva pop, but nobody will confuse her "God Bless The Child" with Billie Holliday's.

Joel Miller

Two tracks from Mandala

Knowing the story behind the title track of the saxophonist's 2004 Mandala makes it easier to enjoy the first of two free tracks from the album. A Sanskrit word prevalent in Tibetan Buddhism, the mandala "is a circle enclosing a square with a deity on each side," according to the liner notes. Miller's composition is a series of four phrases representing the square, with the space between intended for solos. It's catchy and a clever vehicle for his progressive mainstream sextet, where if often feels like they're (tastefully) coloring outside the lines by using the structure as a map rather than a strict guide. "Rasher" is a fun and funky complimentary piece, with a commendable trumpet solo from Bill Mahar.


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